To say the Israeli/Palestinian conflict is complicated would be a vast understatement. The opposing claims of entitlement to the land internationally recognised as Israel are fierce, spanning back generations between Arabic Palestinians and Israeli Jews. Though areas like Gaza experience the brunt of this clash, the ramifications are felt throughout the country as two peoples struggle to live side by side. Tel Aviv is known internationally for its liberal attitudes and as a result, a large Gay Community has sprung up there. But despite its open-minded society, the division between Palestinians and Jews is still felt right down to the bedrock. Oriented is a documentary that follows three gay Palestinians in the eighteen months leading up to the war in Gaza in 2014, on the one hand exploring what life is like in liberal Tel Aviv, but on the other putting their national identities under the microscope.
Khader, Fadi and Naeem are best friends. They like drinking, dancing and talking about boys, just like any group of gay men, but the trio are gay Palestinians living alongside gay Jews. The division they feel is clear from the outset, in which they bemoan the idea that gay Jews are their saviours, who allow them to live in a liberal city. These men have chosen to live in Tel Aviv, but this does not mean that they wish to leave their identities behind in the towns and villages where they grew up. In fact, the film takes us to two of their homes (of differing levels of liberality), both showing that the reasons the men left was because of the areas' oppressiveness toward all people who are different, not just toward those who are gay. Fadi's mother, who is open to and accepting of her son's sexuality, even says that she has to escape for a week at a time just to be able to live a more open life anonymously. Meanwhile, Naeem's family simply cannot understand why he is unable to put his happiness on hold to allow the family to be together. But Naeem is yet to come out of the closet.
Khader has a Jewish boyfriend, but speaks directly to the filmmaker in his refusal to allow the documentary to be a love story between two opposing sides. "That's so 90s," he says and he's right. From the outset, we see the pair as a normal couple whose ethnic difference is just incidental. But where this couple is able to overcome their differences, Fadi is completely different. He says that he would find it impossible to fall in love with a Jew; not for any racial reason, but because he could not be with a person who did not accept his political view that the Israeli people were occupying Palestinian land. In fact, we later see Fadi wrestle with his conscience as he meets a young Jewish soldier and begins to date him, unable to reconcile his attraction to the person with his distaste for his politics. And this small plot-point is what encapsulates Oriented as a film - the struggle between sexual and national identities. Their want for sexual freedom has led to them having to live side by side with people they cannot accept and for them, that reconciliation is difficult.
Essentially, Oriented is more about the trio's politics than their sexuality, which makes its title somewhat misleading. Along with their friend Nagham, they make politically charged YouTube videos, that explore and celebrate their difference. At the start of the film, Naeem decribes himself as "Palestinian, vegetarian, atheist and feminist" - a complex identity for an audience to comprehend, but it increasingly becomes obvious that the group are still struggling to understand their identity themselves. This is a generation with phones glued to their hands, tuned in to social media, fighting their war through the internet rather than through physical warfare. Khader declares that he is part of a new Palestine, that the liberality they experience in Tel Aviv has not been afforded to them by the Jewish occupation, but that the whole Arab world is moving that way, illustrated through a trip to Amman in Jordan, where a rock concert does indeed seemingly reflect the lifestyle with which they are accustomed back in Tel Aviv. However, it is Khader who later travels to Berlin and sees immediately the benefits of living life there without conflict. All these friends claim to be enlightened about their "modern generation", but instead they are seemingly walking in the dark.
The documentary itself captures the friendships with remarkable honesty, where you see these politically charged young men going about their daily lives. The group were able to accept Witzenfeld as their passive observer because the trio speak in Arabic, a language the director is unable to understand, allowing them to speak freely in front of him. What results is an empowering film about gay Palestinians, which gives them a clear voice, albeit a muddled one. However, the film sometimes lacks direction, ambling between the stories, picking up leads and then never following them through. We see charged moments as Fadi contemplates his Jewish lover or as Naeem finally comes out to his family by letter, but the speedy resolutions on each of these points is hurried and seemingly irrelevant. Essentially this is a character piece, and while the political overtones that drench the film are fascinating, we are just as concerned with the figures at its centre. This reconciliation of sexual and national identities needs to give both equal weight, but instead focuses far more on the latter, leaving the film uneven and unbalanced.
Available on Netflix.